eBooks and academic libraries


One of the more puzzling and sometimes exasperating experiences for our library clients is their attempts to access and download eBooks from the library.  No matter how much we would wish for it, the experience is just not the same as clicking ‘purchase now’ at the Kindle eBook store where, hey presto, within seconds the desired book is on your device ready to be happily consumed.   Admittedly, getting hold of an eBook from an academic library is not so bad once you know how to do it, but it’s the knowing how to do it that seems to be the stumbling block over which many unwitting would-be readers have fallen.

I’ve been working with one of my colleagues preparing a workshop to explain, demonstrate and help our clients to get the most out of the library’s vast eBook collection.   So, I’d like to share a few of the points that I have been putting together.

EBooks have been available commercially for many years now; the first eBook dates back to 1971 with the digitisation of the United States Declaration of Independence (the first eBook produced by Project Gutenberg). The first dedicated e-reader was released in 1998, with Amazon’s Kindle appearing in 2007. Since then, sales of eBooks and readers have skyrocketed – in 2010 Amazon reported that, for the first time, its e-book sales outnumbered sales of its print books.

When it comes to libraries offering eBooks, the situation is a lot more complex, as publishers have been concerned about the potential impact on their sales figures.  They have been experimenting with different lending business models, with libraries being the guinea pigs!  As a result, the current eBook / library arena is in constant flux and evolution, with many different models operating simultaneously and much hair-pulling evident from the librarians charged with managing them.  Libraries seem to be at a similar stage with eBooks as they were with the shift from print to electronic journals ten to fifteen years ago.

At Curtin Uni library (as in all other academic libraries), rather than sitting quietly back and waiting for the best model to emerge, we have jumped right in and are learning to swim in the murky waters of the eBooks environment.  Curtin has been purchasing eBooks since 2003 and in that time have purchased eBooks from a whole medley of eBook providers and platforms, each with their different conditions and restrictions, functionality, and modes of access – all which can result in a lot of confusion and frustration for those attempting to use an eBook from the library.

Curtin library has adopted an ‘e-preferred policy’ where it no longer buys the print copy of a book unless it is not available as an eBook or if a print copy is specifically requested.  Consequently, they are purchasing many more eBooks than print books. Their clients also have access to a lot more eBooks than they own by using subscription and patron-driven acquisition models (a system whereby the eBook provider allows access to their eBooks through the library catalogue and the eBook is purchased by the library only after the item has been loaned a certain number of times). This means that the library is able to make many more books available to clients than it otherwise could afford.

The large majority of library eBooks are provided through ‘aggregators’ (like EBL and Ebrary) which aggregate the content from hundreds of different publishers and make them available through their platform.  Then there are the eBooks purchased directly from publishers, like Springer, Cambridge, Elsevier, Wiley, each of which have their own individual platforms.

There are some significant differences in the experience of accessing and using an eBook from an aggregator, compared with a publisher platform.

eBooks through aggregator platforms have much more rigorous DRM (Digital Rights Management), including restricting the amount you can copy or print and the length of time you can download the item for.  However, they are more likely to make the EPUB format available (flowable text), which means the reading experience is better on a mobile device (compared to reading from a pdf file).   The other advantage is that the books are presented through an online ‘reader’ for desktop reading, which allows easy page turning, searching, highlighting, bookmarking, note-taking and other useful functions.

The difference with accessing an eBook from the publisher platform is that the format is usually pdf, and most commonly you download each chapter as individual files. The experience is much like downloading a journal article (which does suit many people) and you self-monitor the copyright restrictions.

It may be some time before the water clears and a workable, standardised model emerges that works well for both the publishers and the library.  We live in hope.

What is your experience of eBooks in libraries?

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